Education Spotlight: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

In which a teacher leads by example

This week’s spotlight is a misdirect. Elizabeth Jennings (Graham, although we’ll focus on her single-lady days) was a schoolteacher, but the incident and court case for which she became famous had nothing to do with her teaching. Rather, it got her a mention in the New York Transit Museum.

TL;DR: she was the original Rosa Parks.

The scene: Summer 1854, Sunday morning. A twenty-seven-year-old Jennings set out for church from her home in lower Manhattan. She was running late and made to board the first streetcar that came along. At this point in time all transit was run by privately owned companies; unsurprisingly, most of these companies catered only to white passengers. The streetcar Jennings was boarding belonged to the Third Avenue Railway, and the conductor was not eager to take on a woman of color. He tried both verbally and physically to force her to disembark, but she resisted. He flagged down a police officer and painted her as disturbing the other passengers. That none of the other passengers was bothered in the least by her presence mattered little to the police officer: he and the conductor together managed to remove her from the car. (Tell me again how police aren’t violence workers.)

Her church group found out what happened and were naturally enraged. They held a rally the next day. Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railway and was represented by a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. Yep, the future President. In the spring of 1855 she won her suit and collected damages for the indignity she had suffered. This was acknowledged by all as a step forward. But almost two decades would pass—full of lobbying by Black organizers, not to mention incidents and suits filed (and lost) by other Black passengers—before the New York City transit system was desegregated. That puts us in the early 1870s, only about a century and a half ago. And this was a progressive Northern city.

Oh, and in the interim there was a little tiff between the states. People don’t talk about it much.

An aside that I think bears relevance: Horace Greeley and his New York Tribune really milked the Jennings case for all it was wroth. If Greeley’s name rings a bell, he’s the guy who said, “Go West, young man!”—the guy who was a feminist, socialist, and vegetarian but who doesn’t appear to have given much thought to the rights of Indigenous peoples. If Black freedmen were fighting to be recognized on the streets of New York, Indigenous communities were set so far back that they’re still recovering. When it comes to acknowledgement, access, and reparations for communities of color, there is always, always, always more work to be done.

Anyway, I heard of Elizabeth Jennings Graham just the other week through a favorite travel/edutainment resource, Atlas Obscura. I’m now very glad to know her story. She—or, more accurately, the reaction she caused—is an example of the truth that bigotry is taught and learned as opposed to innate, and that people will actually ride a bus together in peace if only you leave them alone. She also offers proof that you need not confine yourself to doing one thing with your life, and that the most significant thing you do might not be at all related to how you earn your living.

Image: from the Zinn Education Project

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer-editor based in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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